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THE FIRST-EVER BUILDING IN JAPAN TO HAVE SUCH A THIN CONCRETE SHELL AND BE ABLE TO WITHSTAND THE IMPACT OF AN EARTHQUAKE

CONCRETE QUARTERLY/ AUTUMN 05

Japanese architect Kei'ichi Irie of Power Unit Studio has branded the fast-growing tracts of stereotyped suburban housing crowding around Japan's towns and cities as 'sad suburban sceneries', and claims they are destroying what has been left of nature in the suburbs.

Y-house is built on a tight 325m 2 site in Chita - in the Aichi area of Japan - right in the middle of a hillside row of just such uninspiring suburban houses. The site was created by the earlier cutting of a flat street out of the ground using massive, ugly concrete retaining walls. Irie has aimed to design the new concrete dwelling to act as a statement in support of the dignity and serenity of the surrounding natural environment. 'We decided to avoid tinkering with the slope as much as possible, and create a space isolated from the surrounding, painful landscape, ' he says.

'It is in no way possible to impose a full-scale change on such devastation. But we may build a house that is neither destructive, nor violent.' The sloping site is at risk of damage from heavy rain and in an area vulnerable to earthquakes. To keep the structure as safe as possible from any such dramatic interventions it was decided that the base would be made as small as possible so as to minimise any effect of movement on the site. Seen from the street, the house looks small and low. The door on to the street serves alone to introduce light from this direction, through translucent glass, except for one black-rimmed window which frames a small view of the town. However, once inside, stairs lead down into the main living space as the house drops 2.5m from street level to hunker low on the hillside. The downstairs bedroom is cut deep into the hillside, providing the stabilising base upon which the forces from the cantilever can be taken.

The whole structure is formed from 150mm-thick in situ-reinforced concrete, making it, according to Irie, the first-ever building in Japan to have such a thin concrete shell and still be designed to be able to withstand the impact of an earthquake.

Articulation of the austere interior space is left as minimal as possible. An upper bedroom sits over the main living space, where the precast concrete ground floor extends from interior to exterior in the form of a massive cantilever which projects over the site. The outside space created is reached through sliding doors within a massive square black frame set into the otherwise fully glazed facade.

The external Y-shaped area created by the cantilever is a unique extension to the living space, from which the owners can enjoy peaceful views across the valley to forests. The slanted concrete wings act as blinkers, effectively blocking the view of ugly neighbouring houses, focusing attention exclusively on the distance.

The acoustic containment of the Y-shaped form takes on an almost musical property. The slow sway of forest trees or traces of rain, for example, feed the space with a variety of sounds which reverberate between slanted surfaces and can be heard by anyone standing or sitting on the concrete.

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